Has Space a Future?
August 18, 2010 8 Comments
By P. Creola
Has Space a future? Many of you would answer yes without hesitation, others may have doubts. But how do matters stand beyond these four walls, out there in the world of politics and economics, where priorities are set and money allocated? I have twenty minutes in which to give you my own answer. You, for your part, will either confirm your initial positive response or emerge with even greater doubts.
The idea of the conquest of space is as old as the human brain. Long before Kepler discovered the laws of celestial mechanics that make interplanetary travel conceivable, an intensive space traffic existed in myth and legend. Men rose into the heavens and gods visited the Earth in chariots of fire. The first space novel was written in 160 AD. The first solid- fuel rockets flew in ancient China, and medieval Europe had not only fireworks but artillery rockets. The first technical drawing of a three-stage rocket dates from . . . 1526!
Do you have the feeling you re in the wrong lecture theatre, listening to a talk on the Middle Ages rather than one on the future of space? Let me reassure you: without reference to the past, the future makes no sense. The past is much more than just the past: it is the only known collection of earlier futures. It should encourage us to reflect on today’s futures. Our rich range of ideas about the future feed into the evolutionary mill, are pressed into the present, and emerge as the past, once evolution has made its inexorable choice. Only futures past will show which of today’s futures was the right one.
Many people see the space endeavor as a thing of the past – a by-product of the Cold War, a piece of machinery left over from a no longer existing worldwide ideological confrontation that will soon come to a standstill.
That conclusion is not only hasty but demonstrably incorrect. Anyone who watches the numerous daily weather forecasts (even if they are not always accurate), telephones to the far ends of the Earth, or steers a boat with the aid of a GPS receiver, is using space technology that has become common place. And so are the people who, from a range of thirty television programs, delight in choosing the most stupid one of all!
Common place space technology is even writing history. It is quite plausible that the fall of the Soviet Empire and the breakdown of dictatorships of all kinds was and will be considerably hastened by a flow of information that, thanks to mobile ground stations, can no longer be stemmed. We have satellites for meteorology, telecommunications, mobile broadcasting, navigation, and remote sensing. Whole branches of the economy live with and through space services that have become part of daily routine. Whether they are operated by private or public bodies, their value to the economy as a whole now far out weighs the cost of their development and operation. Yet without the conviction of the pioneers of space and without the politically motivated initial investment, they would never have been conceived, let alone developed.
Perhaps we can draw a preliminary conclusion here. The space sector as a provider of services quite definitely has a future. It is inseparably and irrevocably bound up with our knowledge of Planet Earth – connecting people, events and information in instantaneous discourse. Of course, this also has its drawbacks. But it nevertheless seems to me absolutely essential if people are to learn at long last, and never forget, that everything which happens, happens just round the corner, and that everything they do has repercussions, even in the most far-flung corners of the Earth.
No category of satellites brings this home as clearly as remote-sensing satellites – an area of space technology in which Europe plays a leading role. The eye of the satellite sees night and day, clouds or no clouds. It alerts us to icebergs, floods and swarming locusts, and will soon be able to warn us of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It monitors the burning of the rain forests, detects oil slicks from leaking tankers, and measures the shrinkage of the ozone layer. Since knowledge is the prerequisite for all action, the eye of the satellite shows us the way and will hopefully at long last provide us with legs on which to tread more carefully around our planet in the next century. The most important thing is careful management of the Earth’s biological, fossil and mineral resources. Remote-sensing satellites should not only enable us to compile an increasingly comprehensive inventory of our natural resources, but should also help us to understand more clearly the finite nature of those resources and incite us to better house keeping.
Thinking about what has been said so far, we can see that we have dealt only with aspects of space activities that in a sense have little to do with spaceflight or space as such. Virtually all satellites function in relation to the Earth – whether as telecommunications relays, fixed points for navigational bearings, or observation platforms.
Let us turn now to flight away from the Earth, towards the other bodies in our Solar System and beyond into the depths of space. That is what has fascinated human kind for thousands of years. Has such spaceflight a future? In 1994 there is no better keyword on that subject than Apollo . A quarter of a century ago, the rivalry between the two super powers culminated in man’s first steps on the Moon. The United States had overcome its humiliation at the flight of the first Sputnik in 1957 and the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, and shown the world its striking technological superiority over the Soviet Union. The two giants had played for very high stakes, and tacitly agreed to turn to other games.
In the space sector, the Soviet Union concentrated on building a manned space station in orbit, while the United States embarked on the development of the ultimate and most fascinating flying-machine of all time: the Space Shuttle. How symbolic that in 1995, only a year after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Moon landing, a Shuttle will be docking for the first time with the Mir Station. Once again, the world is a witness – the rivals have become partners. Their aim now is to build an international space station with contributions from Europe, Japan and Canada, who are already involved with the United States. The station will have many different tasks, with the accent on materials and life sciences, and Earth observation. The overriding goals are the integration of separately developed elements in a functioning whole and the establishment of multinational management. For what purpose? Will man ever again blast out of Earth orbit towards the Moon or another planet? Many think not. Manned spaceflight bears the brunt of the criticism directed at the space sector – whether justified or shortsighted. At the heart of the matter is the future division of labour between man and machine or, more correctly, man and robot.
In the spring of 1994, the first International Lunar Workshop was held in Beatenberg, at Switzerland’s and ESA’s initiative. For the first time, representatives of all the major space powers discussed a return to the Moon, this time conceived not in terms of competition but as an internationally coordinated project divided into logically connected phases. ESA’s idea had met with widespread approval. After a series of exploratory satellites, the next stage will be a permanent robotic presence on the Moon. Most of you will have seen pictures of earthbound prototypes. Weighing from a few tens of kilos to a few hundred, they clamber over the crevices and fissures of the lunar-like landscape, powered by curiosity, descending even into the craters of active volcanoes and reporting back eagerly on everything they see, the state of the terrain, and what can be extracted from it. Thanks to progress in electronics and micromechanics, these robot researchers, working partly under remote control and partly autonomously, are becoming increasingly agile and intelligent. The next robot generation, at the latest, will outgrow practice on Earth and push out into space. And unlike the Apollo astronauts, they will not have to wait for the development of giant launchers – conventional launchers like ESA’s Ariane-5 can already land them on the Moon, or on comets, asteroids and Mars.
Will tomorrow’s astronauts then be armchair adventurers, sitting back comfortably with a glass of beer in easy reach and exploring the Solar System through permanent contact with a horde of robots? I am convinced that an organic division of labour will emerge. The only logical follow-up to the international space station is a permanent manned research base on the Moon. The Apollo astronauts are already grandfathers. It seems to me unthinkable that their great-grand-children, in the years 2010 to 2030, with technology fifty years younger than that of Apollo, will not return to the Moon, at greatly reduced overall cost, to live and work.
Never forget that the Moon is literally in our own backyard. In terms of distance, ten revolutions around the Earth would take the international space station to the Moon – provided it was on the right trajectory! The Moon’s scientific and perhaps economic potential as a natural space station is practically limitless. It is the perfect condensed record of the development of our Solar System, a gigantic laboratory for life away from Earth, and its far side is the ideal platform from which to conduct astronomical observations free of all terrestrial influences. An impressive list of Moon-based research activities is included in a report by an international working party headed by Professor Balsiger of Bern, which has attracted a great deal of attention.
And after the Moon? Mars is certainly the most fascinating target. It is of course a hundred times more distant than the Moon, but it is an independent planet with a history that is both mysteriously different and at the same time fascinatingly similar to that of the Earth. The hypothesis, based on our present understanding, that life developed on Mars long ago and subsequently disappeared, is bound up with the mother of all questions: Are we alone in the Universe? If so, why? And if not, where are the others and shall we ever encounter them?
Whether Mars will be the object of manned expeditions in the foreseeable future is much harder to say than in the case of the Moon. But our clever little robots will certainly explore it. Perhaps the flood of messages they will be sending us will finally crystallise into an urgent summons: On your feet, you armchair astronauts. This is something you simply have to see for yourselves!
And beyond Mars? As I speak to you, ESA’s Ulysses probe, carrying an experiment from the University of Bern, is making the first ever flyby of the Sun’s south pole. In Vevey and Zurich, people are building the structure for ESA’s Huygens probe, which will land on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2004. And in our institutes of technology, more Swiss teams are working on instruments and observation systems for other highly interesting projects in ESA’s Science Programme, such as ISO, XMM and Integral, designed to observe distant stars, galaxies and the more exotic celestial objects in the infrared, X-ray and gamma-ray ranges. Those are examples of space missions in which direct human involvement is forever barred by the laws of physics as we know them today. However, visions of what might be are not only permissible but necessary. They air the dusty corridors of our brains, keep them young and fresh, and – an enormous advantage by today’s standards – cost nothing at all.
Mention of ‘cost’, the keyword in this context, brings us down to Earth …’Spaceship Earth’ an image from the Apollo years. Right enough, the Earth is a spaceship – and a highly developed one. Racing through the Solar System at 100 000 kilometres an hour, its velocity through the Galaxy, in the company of the Sun, is no less than nine times as great. Nevertheless, it is in a sorry state. The crew are plundering the ship’s supplies, tinkering with the temperature and life- support controls, and haven’t yet managed to get hold of the instruction manual. Apparently, they haven’t had time to look for it yet, since they have nothing better to do than engage in bloody skirmishes in every corner of the vessel, while increasing the size of the crew, week in week out, by a further two million.
Given these problems, isn’t Space a cynical flight away from the urgent agenda on Earth? We must not dodge this question. Let me sketch out an answer in three parts:
Firstly, regarding the state of Planet Earth. I have already referred to the role of remote-sensing satellites in environmental monitoring and better management of natural resources. How can we expect to prevent environmental disasters, to avoid – and in emergencies survive – conflicts over the distribution of resources among a world population growing by a hundred million every ten years, and to counter all manner of threats to our free, pluralistic civilization, unless we know more and more about the overall state of the planet and are constantly aware of what is going on and where? We have to ensure that we have unrestricted access to the only place from which an overall and real-time view of the planet is possible – the space around the Earth.
Secondly, on the matter of cost. We have already seen that Earth-oriented satellite services not only pay their way, but are generating more and more profit for the general economy. What of the costs of scientific research in space? Like every other form of basic research, it is an investment in the future that not only leads to innovations, but also stimulates the production of antibodies against irrational ideologies. As for the cost of much-maligned human spaceflight, which will apparently require such inordinate sums of money, just think for a moment of the other areas, apart from basic material needs, in which enormous amounts are spent year-in year-out – sports of all kinds, cars of all colours, drinks of all sorts. The German market in esoteric products alone is estimated at twelve to eighteen billion marks per year. For a tenth of that amount, the Germans could almost finance their own lunar base. There would be plenty left for the exponents of esoteric philosophies, while those more attracted by the unfathomable mysteries of the Universe would no longer be dismissed as idle dreamers.
Thirdly, and lastly, a few thoughts about long-term survival on this planet. We recently witnessed the spectacular collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter. The probability of a similar collision with the Earth over the next 150 years is estimated at 1 in 10 000. Do you find this probability too small to worry about? Enormous sums of money are spent on technical measures and insurance against lesser risks originating on Earth. Nor does it have to be a whole comet. Every ten years, statistically speaking, as in 1908 in the Siberian taiga and in February 1994 in the western Pacific, the Earth is struck by a meteorite with a force equivalent to 10 to 100 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, easily capable of flattening one of the world’s largest cities. Only space technology could give us the possibility of diverting such dangerous debris from its trajectory.
Another example is global warming, the number one issue at climate conferences. However, the battle now raging about natural versus human causes is likely to prove futile, not only because our increasing greed for energy will probably impel us to send all our reserves of fossil fuel up in smoke anyway, but also because there is more and more evidence that abrupt swings of temperature have occurred in the past, even within the larger climatic cycles, which would have had a catastrophic effect on our highly technically developed and highly regionally concentrated civilization. Although ridiculed today, the idea of positioning a filter at the libration point between the Earth and the Sun in order to regulate the amount of solar radiation reaching our planet, or other devices for active climate control could become a real life-saving proposition in no more than a few decades.
Large structures in space – and it would take a whole symposium to discuss them properly – could also become a real possibility in the form of solar-energy satellites, long rejected as unrealistic. By the middle of the next century, when all fossil-fuel reserves have been exhausted, the Sun will have to make a much larger contribution to the Earth’s energy supply. The Earth itself receives less than a billionth of the energy which our star pours out into the Universe free of charge, noise and exhaust fumes. What would be more natural than to divert a further small fraction from the immediate environment between the Earth and the Moon for our own purposes?
My time is up. I would like to encourage you to formulate your own answers to the question of whether Space has a future in the light of the thoughts I have offered. Give a future including Space the chance to undergo the strict selection procedure of evolution on terms at least equal to those of other possible futures. Have the courage to be visionary. If you don’t, others will.
My own answer to the question, ‘Has space a future?’, will not surprise you. ‘Without space, there is no future!’ If you share this view, then spread it in the outside world, where policies are made and money allocated. No opportunity is too small and no event too impressive for you to put your case with convincing arguments and with that inner fire that is the mark of youth.
- DARPA to clean up space debris with a gigantic space net (greendiary.com)